Montana State University

Spring turns into robot season for Montana students

March 8, 2006 -- From the MSU News Service

The RoboRustlers team from C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls works on the robot they will take to Denver this month for a regional competition. From left are mentor Cory Koterba, Birgit Bjelkengren, Hunter Neutzling and mentor Mark O'Connell. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Koterba).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Robots big and small are spreading across Montana, as hundreds of students build robots to compete in regional competitions this spring, according to Donna Minton, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium based at Montana State University.

With names like RoboRustlers and Mutating Squids, some teams are transforming metal while others are turning Legos into robots through a program called FIRST or "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." Ten Montana high school teams have built robots with wheels, metal bars and gears and will compete regionally in Las Vegas, Denver, Sacramento, Calif., and San Jose, Calif.

Middle school and elementary school teams will bring their programmed Lego robots to an April 8 tournament at Sacajawea Middle School in Bozeman.

The high school contests are called FRC, or the FIRST Robotics Competition, Minton said. Middle schools and elementary schools are part of the FLL, or FIRST Lego League.

"While the competitions are a driving force for FIRST programs, the emphasis is not on who wins or loses, but on inspiring creativity, encouraging teamwork and celebrating intellectual achievement," Minton said.

Corvallis High School was the first Montana team to participate in the program. This year, the Montana Space Grant Consortium supports high school teams at Butte, Corvallis, Darby, Fort Benton, Great Falls, Helena, Manhattan, Missoula, Sidney and Simms. With grant funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Montana Space Grant Consortium gave each team $10,000 which helped the teams buy a kit of parts. After receiving the kit, the teams had six weeks to design and build a remotely-operated robot they hope will out-perform other teams from around the nation in a game-like challenge.

"FRC has proven to be a unique window of opportunity for many talented students who otherwise would have no other co-curricular options," said Tracy Pfeifer, coach of the Corvallis FRC team. "Through FIRST robotics, these students are able to excel toward their individual talents beyond their wildest dreams."

With grants from NASA and FIRST, the Montana Space Grant Consortium bought 30 Lego robotics kits for middle and elementary school students across Montana, Minton said. Students aged 9 to 14 are now working with adult mentors to design, build and program robots to solve real challenges. The challenge this year involves finding and recovering archaeological artifacts at the bottom of the ocean, cleaning up after a cargo shipping accident, and sampling fish species.

"The excitement of building real robots and working to solve the missions in the FLL challenge this year has had the kids really engaged and excited," said Bob Clay, coach of the Missoula Hellgate teams.

Teams at the April 8 contest will be judged on programming, design, teamwork and overall performance of their robots, Minton said. She added, however, that, "We want the tournament to be more of a celebration of what each team accomplishes rather than a competition."

FIRST is meant to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating students to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering. It shares the vision of founder Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, who wanted to "create a world where science and technology are celebrated ... where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes."

For more information, contact Minton at (406) 994-6172 or check the Web at

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or